Harry Benson: Kings & Queens

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens features a selection of photographs spanning the 60+ year career of world-renowned photojournalist Harry Benson CBE. Images include chess players and cultural icons of the 20th century such as Robert “Bobby” Fischer, Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Magnus Carlsen, celebrities, American presidents, and British royalty, in addition to newly-commissioned photography from the 2018 Sinquefield Cup.

On View: October 5, 2018 - April 14, 2019.

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens showcases the renowned photographs of the legendary Scottish-born photographer, who captured images of some of the most celebrated personalities of the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1964, Benson gained fame while on assignment with the Beatles on their visit to Paris, taking the iconic photograph of them pillow fighting after learning that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had reached number one on the American charts.

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens Gallery View

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens gallery view

In 1970 he began working for LIFE magazine and shortly after was tasked with following a rising American star, eight-time U.S. Chess Champion Robert “Bobby” Fischer, as he attempted to end 29 years of Russian domination of the World Chess Championship. Benson’s photographs of Fischer captured an important moment in chess and world history, as American Bobby Fischer defeated Russian Boris Spassky in 1972 in a match that is often described as a Cold War battle over a chessboard.

Benson has photographed every United States president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Donald J. Trump and in 1957 began shooting photos of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip among numerous other iconic figures. In his 80s, he continues to photograph celebrities and recently published Harry Benson: Persons of Interest (2017). In 2017, Benson was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame in Saint Louis, Missouri, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center of Photography in New York.

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens Gallery View

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens gallery view

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens is the latest of many collaborations between Benson and the Saint Louis Chess Campus. Shortly after the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF) opened in Saint Louis, Benson had a solo exhibition Bobby Fischer: Icon Among Icons, Photographs by Harry Benson CBE, which centered on his photos from the early 1970s. Benson traveled to Saint Louis to photograph the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. Four years later, he returned to Saint Louis to capture the rivalry between current world chess champion, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, and the world chess championship challenger, American Fabiano Caruana, in the 2018 Sinquefield Cup. Kings & Queens exhibits Benson’s photographs of chess kings like Carlsen and Caruana as well as American grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So alongside members of royal families and “kings and queens” of popular culture like James Brown, Queen Latifah, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Harry & Bobby

Harry Benson was the only person to have private access to Bobby Fischer during the entire 1972 World Chess Championship match in Reykjavík, Iceland. Benson captured intimate images of this time with Fischer and was the first person to deliver the news to him that he had won the match.

Benson began photographing Fischer when on assignment for LIFE magazine in 1971. Sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to cover the 1971 Candidates Match, he began to cultivate a relationship with Bobby, who was known for being notoriously camera-averse, guarded, and socially awkward. Skeptical of journalists, Fischer would request late night meetings with Benson, which generally consisted of quiet walks broken up by Fischer pulling out a pocket chess set to play under lampposts from time to time. Throughout the assignment, Benson and Fischer began to form a friendship, and Benson noticed that Fischer seemed most comfortable in the company of animals and children, who also seemed exceedingly drawn to him. Fischer exuded a sense of patience and understanding with these groups that he did not possess with his peers, whom he generally dismissed. Fischer defeated former World Chess Champion Tigran Petrosian at the Candidates Match, qualifying him for the World Chess Championship. With this victory, he not only continued his rise among chess players, but he also became a pop-culture sensation. At the height of the Cold War, the media played up the tensions of the impending battle between the American and the Russian Boris Spassky, the defending World Chess Champion. Journalists referred to the upcoming match as the “Match of the Century” and used headlines such as “Fischer vs. Spassky: A Major Struggle in the Cold War.”

In an uncharacteristic twist, Fischer exclusively invited Benson and LIFE magazine reporter Brad Darrach to visit him as he trained for the championship at Grossinger’s Resort in upstate New York. Considering himself an athlete, Fischer noted that playing chess required an enormous amount of stamina. He chose this resort complex in the Catskill Mountains due to its reputation as a popular training facility for sports legends such as Rocky Marciano and Jackie Robinson. In addition to his scrupulous chess study, Fischer followed a strict regimen of physical training including running, tennis, swimming, biking, jump rope, and hand strengthening exercises—the latter was a symbolic effort, Bobby told Benson, to “crush” the Russians and their dominance of the chess world.

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens Gallery View

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens gallery view

The tales of the World Chess Championship held in Reykjavík, Iceland during the summer of 1972, are numerous and fantastic.

Fischer arrived late to the first game; forfeited Game 2; inspected television cameras and lights, insisting that they were making too much noise or contained devices that were intended to distract him; and had special chessboards created for the match. He made outrageous demands—requesting more money than the agreed-upon prize fund of $125,000 (to be split ⅝ for the winner and ⅜ for the loser) and requiring that Game 3 be played in a “back room” away from the prearranged setting. Much speculation surrounded this behavior, and it was debated if this was “normal” Fischer conduct, or if he was intentionally attempting to cause a psychological breakdown of his opponent.

The match was organized as the best of 24 games—wins would count as one point and draws as a half point, with the winner being the first to reach 12 ½ points. The first game took place on July 11th and the last game began on August 31st and was adjourned after 40 moves. Spassky resigned the next day without resuming play and the 29-year-old Fischer won the match 12 ½-8 ½, becoming the 11th world chess champion and the first American-born player to do so—ending 24 years of Soviet domination of the World Chess Championship.

Benson continued to cultivate a journalistic friendship with Fischer. The two spent many hours together during the nearly two months in Iceland, walking and talking night after night through the hills of the Icelandic countryside. Benson noted that the pressure on Fischer was enormous—it is known that Fischer received several phone calls from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger encouraging him to play the match when he threatened not to compete. Noticing Fischer’s lack of social skills and recognizing his loneliness and isolation, Benson stated, “Bobby regarded the press as enemies, yet there had to be one friendly face in the enemy camp, and I figured it might as well be me.” Benson’s photography captures a side of the elusive and controversial chess genius that is rarely seen and offers a window into the private world of the man Benson calls “the most eccentric and most fascinating person I have ever photographed.”

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens Gallery View

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens gallery view

Harry & the Saint Louis Chess Campus

Harry Benson and his wife, Gigi, have been great friends of the Saint Louis Chess Campus for the past eight years.

The dynamic and forward-thinking duo of Rex Sinquefield and his wife, Dr. Jeanne Sinquefield, have made the World Chess Hall of Fame the most important chess center in the world. It’s an honor to have my photographs on the walls there—from Jackie Kennedy to Queen Elizabeth II and from Bobby Fischer to the next generation of chess champions. I know Bobby would feel right at home here because Rex has accorded him the respect he deserves as World Champion.

—Harry Benson

Benson was an integral part of the HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (2010), which was directed by Liz Garbus for Moxie Firecracker Films. Benson’s photographs (many of which are included in this exhibition) were used throughout the film, and his interviews helped to shape a sympathetic and personal image of Fischer. In January 2011, the World Chess Hall of Fame produced an exhibition of Benson’s photographs featured in the documentary for its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. The WCHOF then hosted the Saint Louis premiere of the film and co-hosted the New York premiere. In addition to appearing in the film, these photographs along with many others are also featured in Benson’s book Bobby Fischer (2011).

This project led to Benson’s next collaboration with the Saint Louis Chess Campus—his solo exhibition, BOBBY FISCHER: Icon Among Icons, Photographs by Harry Benson CBE in 2012.

Bobby Fischer: Icon Among Icons Gallery View, 2012

Bobby Fischer: Icon Among Icons gallery view, 2012

In addition to the photographs of Bobby Fischer, this exhibition explored the concept of the icon and Benson’s impact on American culture through his images of celebrity subjects. Fischer was initially known only in the chess world. As he became a representative symbol of American power during Cold War, these then-new photographs made this once-unfamiliar figure readily recognizable to the general public. Fischer was shown in context with other celebrities photographed by Benson, allowing viewers to see his cultural significance as virtually equal to that of presidents, movie stars, artists, designers, and leaders, whose impact has made them objects of great attention and devotion in society.

Harry & Fabi

In 2014, the Saint Louis Chess Campus invited Harry to cover the Sinquefield Cup, an annual elite international tournament featuring the strongest chess players in the world.

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens Gallery View

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens gallery view

The second iteration of this event was held from August 27 to September 6 at the Saint Louis Chess Club. At the time, it was, by rating, the strongest tournament in the history of chess. Six grandmasters competed for a prize fund of $315,000, with $100,000 presented to the first-place winner. It only made sense to bring in a photojournalist to document these historical events in Saint Louis. Who could better understand the inner workings of a chess player than Harry Benson, who spent so many months shooting Bobby Fischer and then went on to be his friend until his death in 2008?

At the time of the tournament, chess was growing in the United States again. After the initial “Fischer Boom” in the 1970s and early 80s, the momentum slowed down drastically—that is, until 2008 when Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield opened up the Saint Louis Chess Club in the Central West End neighborhood in Saint Louis. Though it was originally going to be a “nice” club where people could come and play casually and take some lessons, in 2014, its efforts led to the United States Senate unanimously passing a resolution declaring Saint Louis the Chess Capital of the United States and recognizing the Club for its achievements. Grandmasters and children aspiring to be great players began moving to Saint Louis in droves. The Club began hosting the United States Chess Championship in 2009, and later staged the U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, U.S. Junior Championship, U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, and the Sinquefield Cup as well as an array of other international events. The World Chess Hall of Fame, which documents the cultural and historical impact of the game, also moved to Saint Louis in 2011. This resurgence of American chess has been attributed to what is now known as the “Sinquefield Effect.”

In 2014, Benson was again in another once-in-a-lifetime photographic moment, capturing history for the world to see. American-born Fabiano Caruana, who represented Italy at the time, played in Saint Louis for the first time against Levon Aronian, World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Veselin Topalov, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. As expected, the tournament was impressive, yet no one could have ever projected that history was being made. According to Rex Sinquefield: ”Fabiano Caruana stormed the field by winning seven consecutive games, putting on one of the most memorable shows in the history of chess on his way to victory in the event.” Caruana would go on to finish 8 1/2/10 with a performance rating of 3130—the highest-ever performance rating in a single tournament. He documented each of the players as they sat at chessboards in deep thought and at times with pure agony on their faces. He showed them studying each other’s games, their individual body language, and the excited spectators. Benson also took the time to convince the players to take some casual photos as they interacted with each other off of the board. After the event ended, several photos were reviewed, printed, and placed in the World Chess Hall of Fame’s permanent collection. A few have been reproduced or shown as part of various events or exhibitions.

Soon after his momentous victory in the Sinquefield Cup, Fabiano “Fabi” Caruana left the Italian Chess Federation and repatriated to the United States. In that short time, he has gone on to win the 2016 U.S. Championship, 2017 London Chess Classic, 5th Grenke Chess tournament, 6th Norway Chess tournament, and shared the 6th Sinquefield Cup title with current World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Grandmaster Levon Aronian. Before the November world championship match, Caruana will join his 2016 gold medal-winning olympiad team on Board One in an attempt to once again place first in the team competition. In March 2018, Fabi won the Candidates Tournament, earning him the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the title of world chess champion in London in November 2018. This level of success in America has not been seen since Bobby Fischer’s days playing in the 1960s and 70s.

Benson returned to Saint Louis this past August to document the 2018 Sinquefield Cup, but most importantly, the round on August 25, when Caruana would play Magnus Carlsen in what many viewed as a preview to the 2018 World Chess Championship.

As we prepared for Harry’s new “job” in Saint Louis, I began to review the photos that he took in 2014. Throughout his career, Benson has been described as being one of the most important photographers who has ever lived because he knows how to capture “legendary moments,” those that are “intimate,” “for the ages,” and that “can never happen again.” I was in awe of the images I was reviewing—the majority of the photos that Harry captured in 2014 were of Magnus and Fabi together. Many serious photos were taken of them playing chess, but his candid photos of these two players were remarkable and reminded me again of Harry’s brilliance and his uncanny intuition to just understand greatness. In 2014, chess players and enthusiasts knew that Fabiano was an important and strong player, but no one knew what he was going to accomplish in 2014 and beyond or that he might become the second American-born player to win the World Chess Championship. Harry took dozens of touching, silly, and candid photos of Fabi and Magnus—arm wrestling, hugging, and making each other laugh. It’s as though he saw that these photos were defining a historical moment before it happened.

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens Gallery View

Harry Benson: Kings & Queens gallery view

The 2018 photos, in contrast, see a severe change in maturity and possibly nerves as the two players seem much more serious and distant with each other. Benson even captured the stunning moment of Magnus in the confessional booth “shushing” all of the “haters” when he thought he was beating Fabi in their game in Round 8 on August 25. They would go on to draw. These photos are so important to our chess history in Saint Louis and are now part of Harry’s incredible legacy. Several of these photos will now be shown in this new exhibition which pairs these “kings” of chess with a variety of world leaders and others who may be considered kings or queens because of their impact on the world. It has been an absolute honor to work with Harry Benson and his incredible wife, Gigi, who is an integral part of this exhibition, again. We hope that you will enjoy this exhibition, learn about these important subjects, and also catch a glimpse into the innate talent of one of the most fascinating photographers ever.

Emerson Logo (Black)

Generously supported by Emerson.

Financial assistance has been provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

View the full Exhibition Brochure here.

Photography © Harry Benson CBE


1/31/2019: HEC-TV — Peter Manion & Harry Benson at the World Chess Hall of Fame (video)

10/15/2018: The Eye of Photography — Harry Benson - Kings & Queens

10/4/18: Periodistas — Exposición sobre la figura de Bobby Fischer del fotoperiodista Harry Benson

10/4/2018: KMOV — New photography exhibit showcasing chess legends to open in CWE Friday

10/4/2018: US Chess — World Chess Hall of Fame Exhibit Celebrates Renowned Photojournalist Harry Benson

10/4/2018: St. Louis Public Radio — On Chess: Legendary photojournalist Harry Benson's connection to St. Louis

10/3/2018: FOX 2 — Chess Hall of Fame Art Exhibit (video)

9/27/2018: Business Insider — World-Renowned Photography and Contemporary Art Exhibits to Open at the World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis this October

9/27/2018: Press Release — Harry Benson: Kings & Queens

9/24/2018: New York Social Diary — Around the nabe